Monday, 30 September 2013

La Bersagliera

This weekend I went with a group of friends to my very favourite pizzeria. Bearing in mind that, living in Pisa, I have over 120 pizzerias right on my doorstep, almost every time I go for pizza with friends we take the 20km drive through a series of tiny villages to reach the pizzeria La Bersagliera on the outskirts of Lucca. The surroundings are not in any way spectacular, it is set right on the edge of the SS12, surrounded by residential buildings. Similarly, the interior leaves a lot to be desired with plain white walls, a series of camping-style, long, wooden tables and benches and a vast array of ornaments and trinkets that make you feel as though you are an intruder in an old lady’s retirement flat. When it comes to the service, things aren't much better, stories of the 'like it or lump it' attitude of the dinnerlady-style waitress have become local legends. We warn the two newcomers in our group to keep their heads down and not to ask too many questions! When eating at the Bersagliera you can expect to be crammed in like a sardine, presented with a menu that consists only of pizza, one variety of wine and one variety of beer and then to wait between 40 – 90 minutes for your food to arrive. Yet the thing that keeps us and so many others coming back time and time again is, of course, the incredible pizza.

The first thing that makes the pizzas so great is the toppings. The Bersagliera specialises in sourcing Calabrian ingredients, which are not so easily found in other pizzerias, such as Calabrian sausage, sopressata, sorriso (a blend of chilies), rosa marina (tiny fish in a spicy sauce) and the best olives I've ever tasted in my life. Then, there is the pizza base itself which is beautifully fresh, salty and the perfect compromise between the thin Tuscan base and the deep pizza from Naples. The best part of all is the generosity of the portions, the pizzas are easily twice the size of a standard pizza and are covered with an abundance of toppings. Most people don’t even come close to finishing a full pizza in one sitting but, for me, being able to take the rest home and eat it the next day is one of the biggest draws!

Edoardo was very happy with his calzone!
Despite its many flaws, we have also come to love the ‘alla buona’, rustic atmosphere that the Bersagliera has to offer and look forward to our monthly trips where we stuff ourselves with delicious spicy pizza. Everybody has their usual order which they go for every time, mine is the Tarantella pizza, a combination of Calabrian sausage, sorriso, scamorza cheese, aubergine and olives. This time, however, I decided to make the bold decision of adding mascarpone to my order which was a great success; the creamy cooling mascarpone worked perfectly with the spiciness of the sausage and the sorriso.

Pizza Tarantella con mascarpone
In tribute to my new pizza topping combo, I decided to make some n’duja (pronounced un-doo-ya) and mascarpone pasta for lunch today. Super simple, super quick and super tasty!

Maccheroni con n’duja e mascarpone

Serves 4 
  • 400g maccheroni rigate
  • 1tbsp n’duja sausage
  • 1tbsp mascarpone
  • Parsley for serving

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is al dente then drain, keeping to one side some of the pasta water. Stir the n’duja and mascarpone into the pasta, adding a little of the water until you get a smooth, creamy sauce. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley. It’s a simple as that! Buon appetito! 

You can visit La Bersagliera in via Pisana, 2136, Lucca, Italy

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina

Last week my friend Valeria and I decided to organise a dinner party inspired by some homemade ingredients that she had brought back from her hometown of Bono in Sardinia. Her father had cured some prosciutto and sausage which we served as antipasti, along with some Sardinian cheese and typical Sardinian bread called Pane Carasau. For the primo we decided on Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a dish from Sorrento, near Naples, in an attempt use up the last of the season’s tomatoes. Of course you could cheat a little and buy your gnocchi ready-made but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for a master class in making fresh gnocchi so we decided to start completely from scratch.

There are in fact many different varieties of gnocchi including gnocchi di farina (made with bread and flour), gnocchi di polenta (with polenta flour), gnocchi di castagne (with chestnut flour) and many types of gnocchi with added ingredients such as spinach, pumpkin or cheese. The recipe for gnocchi alla Sorrentina, however, calls for the classic potato gnocchi, which was perfect for my first gnocchi-making experience! Since we had two coeliac guests for dinner, we replaced the wheat flour with a gluten-free mix but for my non-coeliac readers, here is the method for the classic potato gnocchi:

Note: Classic potato gnocchi should be made without egg but most Italians add at least one to ensure that the mixture binds together well for a smooth result.

Serves 4

For the gnocchi:
  • 100g flour
  • 400g potatoes (a floury variety)
  • 1 egg
  • Salt
Wash the potatoes and put them into salted boiling water with the skins on. Leave them to boil for around 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce them with a knife, then drain and leave them to cool down a little.

Once sufficiently cooled, you can then begin to peel the skin off the potato. Cooking the potatoes with the skins on makes them incredibly easy to peel and also gives them a richer, earthier flavour. When all the skin has been removed, pass the warm potato through a potato ricer or mash thoroughly. Do not use a blender as the potato will become heavy and gelatinous.

Tip the mashed potato onto a floured surface, make a hole in the middle and fill it with the flour, egg and around a teaspoon of salt. Gently incorporate all the ingredients until you create a ball of dough. Do not over-work the mix as the gnocchi need to be fluffy and light.

Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll them out into long cylinders about 2cm wide, re-flouring the surface as required. Cut the cylinders into 2cm long pieces using a sharp, floured knife.

You can then shape each gnocc0 (gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, one gnocco, two gnocchi) by lightly rolling it with your thumb against a ridged surface, slightly twisting your thumb at the last minute to create a small fold in the back. We used a gnocchi board to create this effect but you can also get great results by just rolling the gnocchi across the prongs of a fork. Continue this process, placing the finished gnocchi on a tea towel until you have used all of the dough. If you don't have the time or patience for shaping your gnocchi don't worry, a rustic rectangular or even round gnocco is perfectly acceptable, you can even just squash them a little bit with a fork!

To cook the gnocchi simply drop them into salted, boiling water and drain once they begin to float to the top, this should only take about 2-3 minutes so make sure you keep an eye on it! If making the gnocchi alla Sorrentina, make sure you have prepared your sauce (see below) before cooking the gnocchi!

For the Sorrentina sauce:
  • 500g fresh tomato sauce
  • Basil to garnish
  • 250g buffalo mozzarella (cut into 2cm cubes)
  • 100g grated parmesan
Before cooking the gnocchi, pre-heat your oven to 180C. Take an oven-proof dish and line the base and edges with a little fresh tomato sauce and place 1/3 of the mozzarella in the bottom. If you can’t find buffalo mozzarella, normal is fine. Lining your dish with tomato sauce will ensure that the gnocchi won’t stick to the sides.

Cook your gnocchi as above. Note: To save time, do not salt the water until it is fully boiling as salted water takes longer to come to the boil.

Return the drained gnocchi to the pan and mix with the remaining tomato sauce, another 1/3 of the mozzarella and half of the parmesan. Pour the tomato-coated gnocchi into the baking dish, sprinkle over the remaining parmesan and mozzarella and bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown on top.

Garnish with basil leaves and eat it while it’s hot! As you can see, it certainly went down well with our dinner guests!

Gluten-free gnocchi

100g gluten-free flour (we used Schar)
400g potatoes
2 eggs (plus one extra yolk if your mixture doesn’t seem to be coming together)

Wash the potatoes and put them into salted boiling water with the skins on. Leave them to boil for around 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce them with a knife then drain and leave them to cool down a little. Once sufficiently cooled, you can then begin to peel the skin off the potato. Cooking the potatoes with the skins on makes them incredibly easy to peel and also gives them a richer, earthier flavour. When all the skin has been removed, pass the warm potato through a potato ricer or mash thoroughly. Do not use a blender or the potato will become heavy and gelatinous.

Tip the mashed potato onto a floured surface, make a hole in the middle and fill it with the flour, egg and around a teaspoon of salt. Gently incorporate all the ingredients until you create a ball of dough. As the flour is gluten-free, you will need to knead for a little longer than when using normal flour in order to create some elasticity to the dough.

Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll them out into long cylinders about 2cm wide, re-flouring the surface as required. Cut the cylinders into 2cm long pieces using a sharp, floured knife.

You can then shape each gnocc0 (gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, one gnocco, two gnocchi) by lightly rolling it with your thumb against a ridged surface, slightly twisting your thumb at the last minute to create a small fold in the back. We used a gnocchi board to create this effect but you can also get great results by just rolling the gnocchi across the prongs of a fork. Continue this process, placing the finished gnocchi on a tea towel until you've used all of the dough. If you don't have the time or patience for shaping your gnocchi don't worry, a rustic rectangular or even round gnocco is perfectly acceptable, you can even just squash them a little bit with a fork!

To cook the gnocchi simply drop them into salted, boiling water and drain once they begin to float to the top, this should only take about 2-3 minutes so make sure you keep an eye on it!  If making the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, make sure you have prepared your sauce before cooking the gnocchi!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Coffee Crisis

For those of you who read my post about the 10 Italian cooking commandments, I'm afraid I can feel another moan coming on, this time directed at another Italian rip-off, it is of course coffee chains. On his first visit to a UK coffee shop my boyfriend asked me a series of questions such as, 'What’s a Mochaccino?’, ‘And a syrup shot?' and ‘ARE YOU JOKING? £1.80 for an Espresso?!’ It's something I'd never given too much thought to before but, reflecting on this experience, I decided that another sin-list was in order so here are my top 10 issues with British/American (Italian) coffee...

 1. Variety – Whenever I step into a UK coffee shop I’m always painfully aware of being worlds apart from my home in Italy where, after 10am, nobody orders anything other than 'a coffee please’ because, after all, what type of coffee could you possibly want to drink post-breakfast time other than an espresso?! Starbucks proudly advertises that there are over 87,000 different drink combinations for their customers to choose from whereas, in Italy, if you’re able to find a drinks menu at all, it’s likely to look something like this:

Which looks a little sparse next to the Costa menu:

And that’s before reading the specials board! What ever happened to enjoying the simple things in life?

2. Flavoured coffee – On a similar note, my second issue with coffee chains is the different syrups, sauces and sprinkles you can add to your coffee to make sure your blood sugar levels are always kept sky high. Why on earth would you want to buy a coffee only to pump it with sugar and flavourings so that you can effectively completely mask any hint of the original taste? It’s like they’ve created a way to make people who hate coffee think that they like it by giving them something that resembles a knickerbocker glory!

3. Frappucino – Ah, the frappucino, yet another imposter on the menu and a clever strategy which now means that even people who don’t like hot drinks don’t miss out on regularly handing over their cash to the coffee chain giants. A chilled coffee, the caffè shakerato, does exist in Italy but there are no plastic glasses, straws or whipped cream in sight. And don’t even get me started again on the flavours!

4. Mocha – Another problem I have is that every coffee chain serves the drink mocha as an authentic Italian beverage when in fact coffee with chocolate is called a Bicerin and can only be found near Turin. The word moka does exist in Italy but refers to the gas-heated coffee makers used by most Italian families to make their espresso at home. No chocolate involved I’m afraid.

5. The Basic coffee – In spite of everything, I could probably forgive all the coffee-mutilation if chains could actually get the basics right. My biggest issue is that even a simple espresso is generally burnt and a bit like drinking dirty dishwater. Overall, Caffè Nero probably comes the closest to recreating an authentic coffee, but as my Italian friends point out, it’s the best of a bad bunch and still very hit and miss.

6. Size – Another issue I have is the size of coffee chain coffees. Not only do they have three, sometimes four, size choices, it seems that no matter what you order it’s always enormous! I may be the only one here, but when I order a cappuccino in the morning I don’t want a pint of it! In Italy, the sizes are pretty standard since it's an essential part of the composition of the coffee; just as you wouldn’t put water in a caffelatte, you wouldn’t serve it in pint-sized mug either.

7. Price – It’s enough to make you choke on your iced skinny caramel latte. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the price for a coffee these days is bordering on daylight robbery. The average espresso in Italy costs around €1 (84p), so how can Costa justify charging up to £2.20?

8. Coffee to go – Another thing that really annoys me is how takeaway coffee has become an Americanised fashion accessory, a symbol that you are too ‘busy’ even to stop and have a drink. My message to these people, get out of bed 10 minutes earlier in the morning! You don’t see people on the tube with a bowl of Cheerios for goodness sake! It’s also getting worse with automatic coffee machines in supermarkets and now even coffee drive-throughs –what is the world coming to!?

9. Pronunciation of latte – Sometimes I think if I hear another person order a lar-tay I'll scream! It’s pronounced lat-tay, the Italian word for milk, so to my southerners readers please stop trying to make it sound posh, it doesn’t work! I also find it quite confusing when ordering a latte, am I ordering a caffelatte or a latte macchiato? Caffelatte is milk with less foam and more coffee, on the other hand, a latte macchiato (meaning stained milk) is milk with a lot of foam and a dash of coffee, often served in a jug on the side. Either way, whenever I order a latte in the UK I never seem to get either!

10. When we drink coffee and why – My final point is not so much of a criticism but more of an observation. It seems that we Brits usually drink coffee for very different reasons to Italians. For us a coffee is often accompanied by a slice of cake, comfy chairs and friends. In Italy on the other hand, after breakfast, coffee is normally just a quick fix to keep you going through the day or to aid digestion, gone in a couple of sips and usually consumed whilst still standing at the bar.

But how do you like to drink your coffee? And what coffee do you like to drink? Please post your comments below and I promise I won’t judge the milky, syrup, sprinkle drinkers out there!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Pesto presto!

I love making pesto. I find it’s one of those things that’s just nowhere near as good when you buy it in the supermarket. It needs to be made fresh and eaten quickly, preferably with a large serving of pasta or generously spread onto some toasted bread. There’s also such a lack of choice when buying ready-made pesto; unless you’re shopping somewhere uber-posh, there’s generally the ‘green’ one and, if you’re lucky, the ‘red’ one and that’s about it. I have to say that things have improved a little on the shop-bought-pesto front since I moved to Pisa but despite trying pretty much every brand and variety going, I still haven’t find one that comes close to beating homemade. And I suppose when it’s so quick and easy to make, why not just make it yourself?

Today I decided to put to the test just how easy it is to make a good pesto. The first reason why making pesto is so easy is because you can put pretty much anything you want in it. The word ‘pesto’ in Italian comes from the verb pestare which roughly translates as to ‘mash or ‘pound’ so as long as the ingredients are pretty well ground up, almost anything can qualify as a pesto. Of course the classic ‘green’ pesto, pesto alla Genovese, is made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, pecorino and olive oil, but other famous varieties include pesto alla Siciliana, pesto alla Trapanese and pesto alla Calabrese. These recipes originate from different areas of Italy; the Sicialiana, from Sicily, features ricotta and tomatoes, the Trapanese, from Trapani, has added tomatoes and almonds and the Calabrese, from Calabria, is made with roasted peppers. The problems is when you have to make a special trip to the supermarket to buy all the ingredients for a traditional pesto recipe it all becomes a bit of a faff and not quite so quick and easy after all. That’s why the recipe for my easy pesto is a little less specific:

1.       Some kind(s) of nut
2.       Some kind(s) of herb/leaf/vegetable
3.       Some kind(s) of cheese
4.       Some kind(s) of oil
5.       Common sense

You can use pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, basil, garlic, rocket, parsley, tomatoes, peppers, parmesan, pecorino, ricotta, mascarpone, olive oil, chilli oil, walnut oil, truffle oil….the list is endless. Of course a little common sense does have to be applied, I’m not sure walnuts, peanuts, coriander, iceburg lettuce, cheddar, Philadelphia and vegetable oil would make for a successful combination, but with a bit of thought you can create something really tasty in a matter of seconds and proudly be able to say ‘I made it myself’.

Today I raided my kitchen and found the below ingredients which I decided could be pesto-able:

Parmesan, pecorino romano and pecorino pugliese

Basil, tomatoes and rocket

Pine nuts, almonds and walnuts

Although tempted to go for a walnut and rocket combination that I’d seen on a restaurant menu a few days ago, I decided to use up some of our tomatoes and go for my take on a pesto alla Trapanese with pine nuts, almonds, basil, tomato, garlic, parmesan and olive oil. In terms of quantities, to serve 2, I normally go with a small handful of nuts, a large handful of herbs, a medium handful of chopped tomato, a small clove of garlic (unless you like it really garlic-y), a generous wedge of cheese and a tablespoon of olive oil.  Now technically, to get an authentic pesto, you should then grind the ingredients using a pestle and mortar but since I was going for a quick and easy version I cheated and used a food processor. Particularly when using basil, this is not the condoned Italian practice; I was pulled up just a few days ago by my boyfriend’s mother for cutting rather than tearing the basil for my caprese salad! Once the ingredients are blended to your desired texture, personally I like my pesto quite smooth and creamy, all that’s left to do is adjust the seasoning. Don’t worry if your pesto looks too thick, you can keep some of the pasta water to one side at the end of cooking and add it until you get the right consistency.

In summary, I can now confirm that making homemade pesto is incredibly easy. Preparing the ingredients, putting them in the food processor, wizzing them up, seasoning and pouring into a bowl took me a grand total of 1 minute 58 seconds. Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals eat your heart out! I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of the pasta because I was so hungry I completely forgot to take a photo until about two thirds of the way through my lunch so I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with just the pesto!

Friday, 13 September 2013

The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments...

Anyone who reads newspapers, Twitter or Facebook will have seen that many articles have been doing the rounds this week regarding The Academia Barilla's release of The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments which are as follows:

  1. You shall not sip cappuccino during a meal!
  2. Risotto and pasta are not a side dish
  3. You shall not add oil to pasta water
  4. Ketchup on pasta: please, don't
  5. Spaghetti Bolognese? No way, it's tagliatelle!
  6. Chicken Pasta: not in Italy
  7. "Ceasar Salad"
  8. The red and white checked tablecloth is only a stereotype!
  9. "Fettucine Alfedo" are popular only overseas
  10. You shall respect tradition and what Italian mamma says
Call me a food snob, but my first problem with this list is that it doesn't cover even half of the embarrassing Italian food faux pas that I am constantly having to explain to confused, and often horrified, Italians. I remember being mortified the first time I brought my Italian boyfriend to meet my family in the UK and my brother insisting that we go to the popular Italian chain restaurant Prezzo (which translates as price or cost in Italian). Aside from the slightly bizarre name choice, he was deeply disturbed by some of the 'Italian' dishes on the menu. Based on some of the Italian-chain restaurant horrors (they know who they are!), we decided to compile some commandments of our own which include:
  1. One does not stuff their pizza crust. Not with cheese, and particularly not with hot dog sausages! I mean, come on people, that's just wrong!
  2. Thou shalt not put chicken, steak, salmon, pineapple, sweetcorn, jalapenos, spicy minced beef, BBQ sauce and god knows what else on a pizza!
  3. Thou shalt not use thousands of ingredients. The whole secret to Italian food is that they keep it simple so stop over-gilding the lily! Pasta with gorgonzola, chicken, pancetta, leeks, broccoli and parsley* or pizza with Sausage, N'duja, chillies, roquito peppers, red & yellow peppers, mozzarella, rocket, pesto, oregano and grana padano**, it's a bit much don't you think?!
  4. There is no such thing as 'Italian nachos'. Nachos are Mexican. They always have been and they always will be, no matter how much pesto you put on top.
  5. Similarly, garlic bread is not Italian either. A baguette is french for starters! Garlic bruschetta maybe, garlic bread, no way.
  6. The tricolore salad does not contain avocado. In fact, they don't even really use avocados in Italy as they're considered a tropical fruit. The green part of the salad is meant to be basil.
  7. Carbonara does not include, onions, mushrooms, garlic or cream. And it's made with pancetta, not bacon.
  8. Pepperoni is not a type of sausage. In Italian, the word peperoni actually means peppers (yes, as in the vegetable).
  9. On a similar note,  restaurant staff could at least do some research into the correct pronunciation of common words such as bruschetta (pronounced brus-ket-ta) or prosciutto (pro-shoot-toe).
  10. Finally, the biggest misunderstanding of all has probably got to be regarding the organization of an Italian menu. It's completely different to that of any other nation in that they have antipasti (bruschetta, meats, cheeses etc) then a primo (usually either pasta or rice) then secondo (fish, meat or vegetarian dish) and contorni (side dishes of vegetables or salad) followed by fruit, desert and, finally, coffee. I'm not saying you have to order them all but it could at least be acknowledged that they exist!

It's not that I'm a some crazy purist when it comes to Italian food, I love a bit of fusion cooking as much as the next person, what annoys me is that these restaurants, supermarkets and even TV chefs put the label of 'Italian' on something that is quite clearly not Italian at all! I almost have respect for places like Domino's because, although they may have taken the pizza and completely butchered it, at least they don't claim to be making 'authentic' Italian food. Just yesterday, I cooked an 'English Carbonara' for my Italian family and they loved it. My problem isn't with adapting recipes, it's with the fact that the British nation seems to have had the wool pulled over their eyes not only in terms of Italian food, but foreign cuisine in general.

*Fusilli gorgonzola - Prezzo
** Pizza Calabrese - Pizza Express

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Gluten-free Baking

My boyfriend Michele had an operation this weekend so to cheer him up I promised to make him a cake of his choice. Now, being a coeliac (I know, an Italian coeliac, how depressing!), it's always a bit of a gamble when I try and bake for Michele. My biggest dilemma is usually whether to try to adapt a normal cake recipe using gluten-free flour or whether to go for a tried and tested gluten-free version. The problem with this second option is that often the types of gluten-free flour vary enormously from recipe to recipe so gluten-free baking is never really an exact science. For this reason I was sold when I stumbled upon this Gluten-free lemon drizzle cake recipe on BBC Good Food which uses ground almonds and mashed potato instead of flour. I have to say that despite having over 100 positive reviews, I was a little sceptical about using potato as I thought it might be a little stodgy and, well, potato-ey, but I have to say I was extremely impressed with the results! I was left with a light, fluffy and extremely moist sponge with a sweet hint of lemon but nothing too over-powering. I would go as far as saying that the drizzle topping over gilded the lily really as the sponge was already perfectly sweet and moist without it. My Italian family, who normally seem a little under-enthused by British baking due to its high butter content, also seemed to enjoy my 'English cake' as they finished it all within 2 days!

So thank you Jane Hornby for posting such a great recipie that I'm sure to make and adapt again and again!

Friday, 6 September 2013


Check out this monster of a tomato I picked from the garden today! 

My boyfriend recently observed that Italians growing tomatoes is probably the equivalent of Brits growing their own potatoes. He came to this conclusion whilst my uncle was showing him around his vegetable patch in Cambridge which, like most British veg gardens, is largely dominated by potatoes and other root vegetables. "The thing is, with potatoes you can really taste the difference if they're home grown." said my uncle "With things like tomatoes, they really don't taste much different to the ones you can buy in the supermarket." I see that Michele tries to hide a smirk at this remark. He thinks it's hilarious how obsessed us Brits are with our potatoes and how many different varieties you can find in the supermarket, as opposed to Italy, where the only choice seems to be between big potatoes....or small potatoes...! But however obsessed we may be with potatoes, when it comes to tomatoes, Italians are ten times worse! And I have to say after tasting home grown, I'm not sure I can ever go back to buying the tough, pallid and scarily uniform product that in the UK we call a salad tomato.

In our garden we grow pomodori marmande which originate from France but are also very popular in northern Italy and can be easily identified by their ribbed exterior. They're absolutely great for using in salads, capresi, bruschette etc. because they're mainly flesh and hardly any seeds or water so you get a lot of tomato for your money and the texture is very meaty and sweet. As with most things in our garden, we have a bit of a tomato surplus at the moment so Anna has been making pan after pan of her special tomato sauce to put into jars for the winter. Here is her recipe:

Anna's Sugo di Pomodoro Fresco al Basilico


1kg large tomatoes (the sweeter the tomatoes, the better the sauce!)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful of basil


  1. Wash the tomatoes, cut them in half from top to bottom and remove the green part of the core.
  2. Take a bowl and squeeze the tomato halves to remove any seeds and excess water.
  3. Place the now seed-free tomatoes into a large pan and leave to soften on a low heat for about 15 minutes.
  4. When the tomatoes are soft, remove from the heat and pass the tomatoes through a food mill to remove the skins and create a smooth sauce. If you don't have a food mill you could also try to use a sieve but it may take a while!
  5. Once passed through the food mill the sauce can then be return to the heat to gently cook for a further 15 minutes 
  6. Finally, season the sauce adding the salt, olive oil and torn basil. If your sauce is very sharp, you can also add a pinch of sugar. Stir thoroughly and remove the sauce from the heat.
Buon appetito!

Note: Sugo di pomodoro fresco is the most pure form of tomato sauce. You can then use this sauce to make variations by adding mince and diced vegetables to make a ragu', chilli and garlic to make pasta all'arrabiata or aubergine, garlic and mozzarella to make pasta alla norma. I personally love it on its own with spaghetti and a few shavings of Cacioricotta on top.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tastes of Calabria

Every summer my Italian family take a trip down to the region of Calabria ie. the toe of the boot to visit relatives and never fail to return laden down with ingredients that you simply can't find here in Tuscany, or in the rest of the world for that matter. Last year they packed the car so full of food that my boyfriend's mother had to take the train back to Pisa as we couldn't fit her in the car! I am a huge fan of Calabrian flavours and was pleasantly surprised to see that they seem to have increased in popularity lately - last time I was in the UK I noticed that even Pizza Express now offers two Calabrian-style pizzas!

Today I thought I would talk you through some of my favourite Calabrian ingredients and tell you a little bit about what we do with them in our household.

So, the first thing I'll say is that a lot of the traditional Calabrian produce is famous for being quite hot as they tend to be quite liberal with the use of chillies, which is fine by me, but not everyone's cup of tea. For those who are a little chilli-shy, fear not, there are also plenty of equally tasty ingredients that have less of a kick.

Starting off with the spicy options, the Calabrian staple ingredient has got to be the Salsiccia Piccante, literally, Spicy Sausage. A lot like Chorizo in both appearance and concept, the salsiccia piccante has a less smokey and more peppery, perfumed taste thanks to the use of the Calabrian pepperoncino and fennel seeds. The quality of sausage can differ greatly so unless you're buying it directly from Calabria it's best to check that the packet has the D.O.P label to ensure that you're getting something authentic. The best Salsiccia Piccante I've ever tasted was some homemade by my boyfriend's aunt that she hangs up to dry in her loft in Calabria, but failing that, anything D.O.P. approved should be decent. You can also find Salsiccia Dolce which is the same as the piccante but without the kick. The sausages can vary hugely in texture depending on when they've been made - I would recommend an older, harder sausage for just eating sliced on its own but a newer, softer one for cooking as you tend to get better results. Most of the time we eat the sausage on its own as an antipasto but it's also great on top of pizza, thrown in a tomato sauce or fried off with some potatoes.

The next ingredient on my list is the 'nduja (pronounced un-doo-ya) which is possibly the most successful ingredient to make it out of Calabria. For those of you who haven't tried it, 'nduja is essentially a spicy sausage paste which, on first glace, doesn't look so appealing but tastes wonderful. Again, there is a lot of variation in the types that you can find - some hotter, some milder, some thicker, some really quite runny. The ones that you find in the Calabrian delis tend to be thick and spicy but, again, a good tip is to go for something D.O.P. We eat ours simply stirred into pasta with some stracchino cheese or spread onto crostini for a tasty antipasto.

Ending the spicy line up we have the pepperoncino flakes themselves which form the base of many calabrian dishes as well as being a key ingredient in cured meats. Calabrian pepperoncino is in fact available in both piccante and dolce varieties meaning that those who love the deep peppery flavour of chilli but don't like the heat needn't miss out. These wonderful little chilli flakes are a welcome addition to any tomato based sauce that needs livening up as well as being used in dishes such as orechiette con cima di rapa, a fresh pasta dish with turnip tops. Being from Calabria, my boyfriend's father sprinkles them on pretty much everything!

Moving on to something a little less spicy, one of my favorites has got to be Soppressata dolce, a dry, cured meat similar to salsiccia. Soppressata, also known as Suppizzata in Calabrian dialect, is a wider, drier salame which slices into oblong shapes and often contains whole peppercorns. Like the salsiccia it is available both in piccante and dolce varieties but tends not to have the fiery red colour of the spicy sausage. Due to its very dry consistency, Soppressata is not normally used for cooking with but is simply eaten as an antipasto or as a snack to accompany an aperitivo.

Finally, I wanted to talk about cheese. Calabria produces many fantastic cheeses such as Caciocavallo Silano and Caprino della Limina, however ,my favourite has got to be the Burrino Calabrese, a mild, cylindrical cheese with a salty butter centre. Again, this beautifully rich and creamy cheese is best enjoyed as an antipasto or snack on some fresh crusty bread or even on its own. Sadly, this summer our Burrino didn't fare so well since the buttery centre melted during the 10 hour drive back to Pisa so we've ended up with a ghee-like filling in our cheese! A non-melted version should look something like this:

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Figs Galore!

It's that time of year the summer comes to an end and our fig tree is so laden down that the branches are dragging on the floor, we have begun the yearly ritual of collecting the figs to dry out in the sun. Now for those living in less sunny climates, I can see that it may seem like sacrilege to put fresh figs (priced at £2.99 for 4 in Waitrose!) out to dry but, believe me, we have so many we don't know what to do with them! This week we have eaten fresh figs, stuffed figs, baked figs, figs in wine, figs wrapped in ham, fig jam - you name it, we've eaten it! My Italian family tell me the problem is that as soon as it rains, the figs lose their sweetness and become watery and since the fantastic weather we've been having is forecast to change next week we need to get all the figs out to dry for as long as possible.

I also think there is something quite nice about drying fruit, it means that at Christmas time you still have a souvenir from the summer, something to keep you going through the winter. Anna and Giovanni prefer to dry their figs whole, although there are some who believe it is better to cut them in half. We usually stuff ours with almonds which I think really transforms them from just some uninspiring dried fruit to a real winter treat.

Here is Anna's method:

First of all, it is very important to have a good sort through the figs and try to identify any which have been inhabited by bugs - not always the easiest of tasks but well worth taking your time over in order to avoid a nasty surprise on Christmas day! Anna likes to get ours started by drying them for as long as possible in the sun but then finishes them off by cutting them in half, putting a whole almond inside and drying them in the oven for a good few hours at around 20C. It is also possible to put them straight in the oven without the sun drying but they will need about 12 hours to be fully dried. Be careful that your figs do not begin to cook. If they look like they're going that way, open your oven door and turn the heat down. Anna then lets the figs cool and stores them away for Christmas. Some more cautious cooks prefer to freeze the figs after baking in order to ensure that any bugs which slipped through the net are killed but Anna prefers to live on the wild side and take the risk!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Seafood Paella

My boyfriend Michele and I recently got back from a holiday travelling around southern Spain. The original plan was just to visit my parents who have a house near Malaga, however, since there were no direct flights from Pisa airport, we decided to stop off in Valencia on the way to sample the famous Paella Valenciana. Being allergic to seafood, sadly I have always foregone the family ritual of gorging on paella whilst on holiday so I was beside myself with excitement when I read that the Valencian paella is in fact seafood free! There are a few variations on the recipe but the classic main ingredients are chicken, rabbit and beans - either butter beans, great northern beans (similar to cannellini) or runner beans. Other variations include the addition of snails, favored in the past by poorer families, duck and artichokes, which are often used in winter to replace the runner beans. 

After doing some extensive research on where to eat our first authentic Valencian paella, we opted for a little restaurant in the old town called Bodegó de la Sarieta. I ordered the traditional Valencian paella which came with chicken and rabbit on the bone and butter and runner beans, whilst Michele ordered a classic seafood paella. I have to say, I was very impressed with all aspects of the dish; the fact that we were warned in advance that the paella was cooked from scratch so there was a half an hour wait, the moistness of the rabbit which is so easy to overcook, the great depth of flavour and the salty 'crust' on the bottom of the pan, called the socarrat, which indicates a top notch, smokey flavoured paella.

Michele and the paellas!

When I arrived in Malaga some days later I was telling my Spanish neighbour, Clotty, about my fantastic dining experience in Valencia and she offered to show me how she made her legendary seafood paella, and the secret to getting that perfect socarrat on the bottom. She was entertaining for a family birthday so the quantities were a little more than I would ever normally need but here is the scaled-down recipe!


Clotty's Seafood Paella

Before starting Clotty advises me that the key to a good paella is to resist the temptation to stir! She explains that unlike a risotto, the idea isn't to make a creamy stock with the rice but rather to allow the stock to be absorbed. She also suggests to keep turning the pan around every so often to ensure that the rice is cooked evenly and there are no burnt bits.

Serves 6
5 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large spanish onions, finely chopped
2 peppers, (Clotty used one red and one green) chopped into 1cm pieces
2 tsp pimentón picante
400g fresh squid, dried with kitchen paper, seasoned and cut into 3cm pieces
200g large peeled prawns (uncooked)
400g small clams, washed
600g short-grain paella rice, such as Calasparra
1 generous pinch of saffron strands
1.5 litres fish stock (Clotty made hers from scratch a couple of days before)
250g mussels, cleaned
6 cooked langoustines


Place a medium sized, well oiled, paella pan over a large burner (if cooking at home, use 2 regular burners) on a medium heat. Add the oil and garlic, shortly followed by the onion and fry until soft. Next add the peppers and pimentón, and fry for about another 5 minutes until the peppers start to go soft. Add the squid and stir-fry about 3 minutes or until it turns white.

Scatter the clams and prawns into the pan and add the rice and saffron. Give everything a good stir then add the stock and some salt (depending on the saltiness of the stock). Bring the paella to the boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, leave on a strong simmer for around 5 minutes without stirring. Remember to turn the pan every few minutes to make sure it cooks evenly. Then lower the gas to medium, place the mussels and langoustines over the rice, pushing them down slightly. Cook for another 15 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed, still without stirring.

Turn off the heat and cover the pan with a clean tea towel then leave to rest for a few minutes before serving. Buen Provecho!

Clotty and her pan!

Legendary paella

Duck all'arancia

The Florentine origins of a French classic

For those who don't take an interest in hunting, it is easy to forget that the transition from autumn to winter also marks the hunting season and the delicious promise of la caccia. Although not always readily available in supermarkets, most good Florentine butchers stock a variety of fresh local game from October to December.

There are several ways to prepare wild game, but the dish that usually comes to mind before many others is perhaps the world-famous French classic canard à l'orange (duck with orange). But just how traditionally French is this dish? It most likely has origins in Florence. Originally known as papero alla melarancia, it was invented in the Middle Ages, when it became popular in noble kitchens to use citrus fruits as a way to preserve meat. It was in this era that the powerful Medici family subsequently ordered the construction of limonaie (orangeries) in many of their villas, where they mainly cultivated lemons and oranges in large terracotta pots. Even today, these limonaie are important features of most Medici villas.

Papero alla melarancia was exported to France in 1529, when the 14-year-old Caterina de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, ruler of Florence, married the future king of France, Henry II. Forty chefs from Siena and Florence accompanied her to Paris, bringing some of their best recipes, many of which were later claimed by the French. Among these are crespelle (crepes; see TF 146), balsamella (béchamel sauce), carabaccia (onion soup; see TF 141) and, of course, papero alla melarancia, soon renamedcanard à l'orange.

Along with her cooks and their recipes, Caterina de' Medici is also reported to have imported to France the fork (see TF 161), porcelain dishes, Venetian glassware, the Italian banking system, theatrical comedy and ballet, as well as the expectation that ladies would be present at dinner (previously they had been excluded, except for special occasions).

While Italians fiercely defend the theory that canard à l'orange originated in Florence, other nations, including France, have also claimed to be the source. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley says that French recipes for duck with orange sauce existed as far back as the fourteenth century. However, the majority of food historians credit Caterina de' Medici, a veritable culinary trendsetter who brought more to France than any other noble, for this dish.

Whether fact or fiction, the possibility of the Florentine origin of duck à l'orange will add a touch of historical spice to this perfect winter warmer. Succulent, rich duck meat combined with the warming, aromatic spice of orange truly makes a delicious alternative to the everyday roast. With high levels of protein, B vitamins and minerals such as zinc, potassium, magnesium and iron, duck meat is very nutritious.

Some cooks avoid duck à l'orange, deterred by its reputation as a complex dish. Here, however, I offer a no-fuss but equally delicious version, arrosto di anatra all'arancia, in tribute to its simple Florentine origins.


Arrosto di anatra all'arancia
(serves 4 as a piatto unico or 6 as a secondo)

1 duck (1.5-2 kilos)
4 oranges
zest of 1 orange
1 onion
1 stalk celery
1 carrot
200 ml chicken stock
juice of 2 oranges
100ml brandy
1-2 tsp brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

If you have not bought the duck already cleaned, clean it well, cutting off any excess fat and removing the giblets. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Cut one of the oranges and the onion into quarters and stuff them inside the cavity. Dice the carrot and celery and place in the bottom of a roasting pan. Cut the other orange into slices and add to the bed of carrot and celery. Place the duck on top so that it covers all of the vegetables and orange slices. Prick the duck all over with a skewer and season generously with salt and pepper.

Place it in the preheated oven. After 20 minutes, reduce the temperature to 180 degrees Celsius and continue to roast the duck for another hour and 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat with its juices. Remove from the oven, cover and leave to rest on a large board while you make the sauce.

Strain excess fat from the roasting pan and remove the orange slices, carrots and celery with a slotted spoon. Adding a splash of chicken stock, place the roasting pan over medium heat, scraping off any residue from the sides and base of the pan. Add the remaining stock, the zest of 1 orange and the juice of both of the remaining 2 oranges, and 1-2 teaspoons of brown sugar (according to taste). Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced a little. Add the brandy, taste and season as required.

To serve, decorate the duck with singed orange slices, and carve into quarters at the table, adding the orange sauce. Serve along with roasted potatoes and seasonal vegetables.